OAKLAND — There is no doubt Golden State is playing on a higher level than Cleveland through the first two games of the NBA Finals, having gone up 2-0 and winning by a combined 48 points.
There also is no doubt the Warriors faced a tougher path to the Finals — Oklahoma City challenged Golden State like no team had in two seasons. The Thunder led 3-1 in that series and pushed the Warriors to the brink, forcing Golden State to start executing at a much higher level just to have a chance. Cleveland rolled to a 12-2 record through a soft East, only dropping games when their focus went away for entire nights.
The Warriors are the sharper team because of it, and they are now carving up Cleveland.
“I think the Oklahoma City series definitely made us stronger,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “It wasn’t a whole lot of fun, and we barely escaped. But I think we were able to sort of capitalize on the momentum that we built during that series, and by winning those three in a row, we’ve been able to carry it over to this series so far.”
The Thunder defense — with the length and size of Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Steven Adams — forced Golden State to be more crisp on offense. And not just the stars, everyone had to play better. That has resulted in wins in the Finals led by Shaun Livingston and Draymond Green, not the Splash Brothers.
The Thunder’s athletic, attacking players also forced the Warriors to defend at a much higher level, something they carried over to this series. Kyrie Irving is just 12-of-36 shooting and 1-of-7 from three shooting through two games, with just five assists. LeBron James is facing a wall of switching defenders — and help defenders — and can’t knock down a jumper to make them pay.
“I think just last series really helped us with their isolation players, guarding [Russell] Westbrook and [Kevin] Durant,” Harrison Barnes said. “We had to have all five guys on the floor to get ready in a stance and play. I think coming into this series we were much more equipped for that.”
It’s also about knowing your opponents personnel.
“I mean, Kyrie and LeBron are two different players than Russell and K.D., but they all have, obviously, amazing strengths which have put them in the category they are,” Stephen Curry said. “So there’s no real comparison. It’s just you know what their strengths are and what our game plan is to attack them, and we’ve done a good job of just staying consistent with it in our game plan this series. That’s all you can ask for is try to make them take contested shots, tough shots, make them work to get open, and you live with the results.”
So far, the results are excellent. If the Warriors can continue this level of focus and execution in Cleveland, this feels like it will be a very short series.